LeBron Gets Locked: How Golden State Usurped the King
Ahead of their January 18th meeting with the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert told Cleveland writer Joe Vardon that the team’s success in dismantling the Stephen Curry show for four straight games dating back to the June finals is a testament to a gameplan that puts “a lot of pressure on him to physically take the punishment all game.” For their fifth matchup, the Warriors took a page out of the Cavalier playbook and put hits on LeBron James every chance they got — sending the King and his royal guard back to Cleveland with a garnish of bruises on top of a 35-point L.
While this might have been an unimportant regular season match at the tail-end of a 6-game road trip for the Cavs, a Spring and Christmas of painful defeats at the hands of Cleveland's finest meant that the boys in blue and gold came out like it was playoffs in January. Even if it can be mostly written off, we are left with one major takeaway: a bullied LeBron means a broken Cleveland offense. Once the King’s mortality is shown, the kingdom seems to collapse.
After more than a decade of dominating the league as some sort of Adrian Peterson point-forward hybrid — LeBron admitted to Cavs reporters that “it takes a toll on me to play any basketball game at this point.” Sensing weakness, the state excised their own toll on the King and doubled down on his physical torment, accepting fouls as a necessary evil in the pursuit of victory (the Cavs had 18 free-throws at the half, the Warriors: 3). The Dubs won by 35 points (126-91) and LeBron was held to the second lowest plus/minus of his illustrious career: -32. King James missed 12 of his 18 shots, turned the ball over six times, and managed just 2 assists. With Bron unable to exert his will on the court — given the pushing, grabbing, and slapping he encountered at every turn — the rest of the Cavaliers offense crumbled into a sloppy amalgamation of contested jumpers and weak moves to the rim. With everyone on the Dubs playing elbows ablaze, the Cavs were held to 35% from the field, their 2nd lowest field goal percentage since LeBron's return. While Klay Thompson and Zaza Pachulia remained a defensive pest and an offensive lineman, Golden State's chief enforcers Draymond Green and Kevin Durant combined for 8 blocks. LeBron's 33% from the field still managed to outdo the rest of his Big Three, as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love made like floundering fish out of Bron’s water, shooting 32% and 17%, respectively.
“It’s not about sending a message. At the end of the day, we played those guys in two straight Finals. You’re not sending a message with a regular season win.” Dray was quick to quiet the hype train in his post-game interview. The Warriors may have shown that you can beat Cleveland if you play with the heavier hand, and they may have gotten their retribution against the Bron who stole Christmas (and Spring). Draymond may have even shown that LeBron can no longer step through, let alone over, people without suffering a kamikaze blocking foul. But January's basketball is very different from June's and one game out of eighty-two is different from four out of seven (just ask a certain 73-win team).
Holding LeBron to the second-worst game of his career is nice, and holding him to the worst game of his career is nicer — but the worst game of LeBron's career was on January 18th, 2016. That day he had a plus/minus of -34 in a 34-point loss to the Warriors, months before he grabbed the Larry O’Brien trophy from them. This time Cleveland was without their gunslinger JR Smith and still developing chemistry with Kyle Korver. It was fun watching the villains annihilate Ohio’s darlings, but the next time they meet ought to be in June when both teams will be playing playoff basketball and the Dubs will be tasked with playoff Bron, a much tougher cookie to crack. Despite the King assuring reporters that Cleveland has no rivalry with the Warriors, Golden State has a different view on their relationship and they refuse to be charmed. It might not be 1783, or even June, 2017, but the State has a militia (of elbows and shoulders) with a plan to end LeBron’s monarchy.